The Wagner-Rogers Bill

20 February 2017

History

As one of the newest members of the Adam Matthew team, and this being my first blog post, I have spent some time exploring the variety of collections Adam Matthew offers – not a bad week for a history geek!

Previously unknown to me, but whilst exploring Adam Matthew’s Jewish Life in America resource, I discovered several interesting sources that relate to America’s past immigration policy and the support shown to refugees.

Jewish Life in America makes available the papers of Marion E. Kenworthy, who with the Non-Sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children lobbied the US Government to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill. U.S Senator Robert Wagner and Congresswomen Edith Rogers introduced legislation to admit 20,000 German Jewish Children to the United States outside America’s strict immigration quotas, in a bid to provide an escape from the abhorrent treatment being received in Nazi Germany.

The Children (Jewish and No-Jewish), n.d., 1939, © American Jewish Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This report to the committee in 1939 by a Jewish social worker describes the hateful conditions Jewish children were subject to in Nazi Germany. It paints a vivid picture of communities who had normalised violence and anti-Semitism. The state of relations with German Jews was at boiling point, Jewish children were shoved, struck and made into sources of amusement when simply trying to make their way to school.

In a particularly striking anecdote, the author recounts an experience with the eight-year-old daughter of her Aryan friends. One day the little girl came home in great excitement to say, “Mummy, think what happened today in school! Some Jewish children came into the building but we drove them out again!”

Whilst at the time the US did not know how terrible the Holocaust would become, with reports such as this shedding light on the effects of anti-Semitism, Americans knew Jews were victims of vandalism and violence on a daily occurrence.

Another interesting source is the Newsletter for the Non-Sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children which displays the wide range of support the Wagner-Rogers bill received.

Not only was there support from prominent clergymen, university presidents and famous actors such as Helen Hayes, but the newsletter provides evidence of the generous spirit and democratic instincts of the American people. In a newsletter in May 1939, the Committee speaks of the 5000 letters it had received from families, offering a home to the children brought to America through the bill.

One such letters reads, “All right-thinking people, I believe, should support this bill. We also have a personal interest, in that we should like to care for one of the children so admitted, with a view to adopting the child, if possible, but in any event to give it the love and the care from which it has been deprived by the cruelty of men or circumstance.”

Unfortunately, even with this support the bill ultimately failed in its goal. Its opponents took an “America-first” approach to rejecting refugees: America should focus on helping its own needy and homeless citizens rather than taking in anyone new. When the bill reached the Full Senate Judiciary Committee, it was amended so that Jewish refugees would count against the German immigrant quota for the year. This totally defeated the purpose of the bill and no further action was taken.

The papers of Marion E. Kenworthy provide a valuable insight into American immigration policy during the Second World War and is just one element of a fascinating resource on the Jewish community in America.

For more information about Jewish Life in America, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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About the Author

Matt Braisher

Matt Braisher

Since joining the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of new products. My background is in history and my main academic interests are in the Holocaust and Jewish studies.